The churning debate over Lackawanna Plaza has for years embroiled Montclair in a clash of visions over how to revitalize a centerpiece of the town without overwhelming the historic neighborhood surrounding it. A project audacious in its scope, that would include five buildings, as many as 375 residential units and 75,000 square feet for office space, has stoked passions over the plan’s sheer breadth.

Now, many in the community harboring misgivings over a draft of a redevelopment plan prepared by the town in collaboration with the project’s developer, have galvanized in protest. By early evening on Thursday, Jan. 5, more than 315 people had signed a petition imploring the Montclair Township Council to scale back the project. The petition, generated by Montclair Residents for Responsible Development, began circulating a day earlier and zeros in on the prospective size, calling it “bulky and grossly out of scale” and “detrimental to the character of downtown.”

The petition is certainly not the first sign of community angst. A series of meetings held by Fourth Ward Councilor David Cummings, as well as Mayor Sean Spiller, Councilor-at-Large Peter Yacobellis and others have captured the unease and conflicted emotions among residents. Virtually everyone acknowledges that the plaza, which is now largely barren, desperately needs a makeover. But just how big and far-reaching should it be? That's the question splintering public sentiment.

Comments by residents signing the petition online reflected a wariness that while a new Lackawanna Plaza might enhance the community in many ways, there was risk attached to the equation.

"Growth is inevitable," wrote Natalie Siemaszko, who said she has lived in Montclair's south end for 26 years. "But too fast and too much can be harmful."

"And quality of life for those who have been here for so long?" she wrote, sounding wistful. "How can one even put a price on that?

Martin Schwartz, a former Planning Board member and an early advocate for a more moderately sized redevelopment, said, "This petition identifies many of the concerns residents now have here about this excessive development, which is simply out of character for our township."

The driving forces behind the petition are Rachael Quinn Egan and Aminah Toler. The petition's authors include Renee Baskerville, Linda Cranston, Robin Curry, David Herron, Sharon Martin-Smith and Adriana O'Toole.

The property, owned by David Placek’s BDP Holdings, would be transformed under the draft proposal. While the plan calls for four buildings of six stories and one five-story building, the petition urges that the size of the buildings be capped at four stories. The petition asks to retain two key elements of the draft proposal: guaranteed affordable housing and a supermarket in a historic Fourth Ward neighborhood that has gone without one for nearly eight years.

The latest opposition comes at a seeming inflection point. The Montclair Planning Board is in the midst of reviewing the project with a Feb. 4 deadline to report to the council on any inconsistencies with the township's master plan and to make recommendations. Once the council reviews the recommendations, it has the options of ignoring any part of the board's input or making modifications to the plan. If the amendments to the plan are substantial, the council may have to reintroduce a new ordinance for a fresh vote, which could end up boomeranging the matter back to the planning board.

Planning board members, at their last session on Dec. 19, contemplated a series of digital displays and a miniature model presented by Ira Smith of Smith Maran Architecture. Trying to ease concerns that the buildings would loom over the surrounding streets, Smith said that stepbacks would create a cascading effect, pulling the facing of the upper floors in and make the buildings appear less imposing. Setbacks, too, for at least some of the buildings would widen the sidewalks and create space between the ground floors and the curb. These architectural devices, he said, would help the buildings blend more easily into the area.

Board members countered with concerns, harping on a fundamental point – that there are only so many ways to mitigate the impact of an development project that is perhaps the largest in Montclair’s history.

“I was delighted the planning board did a good job in questioning the excessive and out-of-character elements of the draft plan,” said Schwartz.

At the Dec. 19 meeting, board members openly fretted that the architectural renderings did not account for rooftop equipment and utility structures that would heighten the buildings and affect the skyline.

The board’s chair, John Wynn, and board member Jeff Jacobson said that an emphasis on how a reimagined Lackawanna Plaza would affect Bloomfield Avenue often eclipsed considerations about how streets and homes bordering the sides and back of the development would be affected. Many residents, Jacobson said, were concerned about the impact on their homes' worth.

Adding a comment to the petition, Lynette Rock framed her perspective succinctly. "Stop with all the building," she wrote. "Montclair is losing its charm."